I’ve been in Spain for a few days speaking at a conference organised by Jose Maria Aznar and Gianfranco Fini. On Monday, my day off, an old friend, the former war correspondent Hermann Tertsch drove us to the Escorial and the Valle de los Caidos. It was closed, but since Hermann is now a TV star, he got us past the Guardia Civil and into the park. We had to check in with the Benedictine monks first, who insisted that in order to get the abbot’s permission to inspect the monument, we first had to attend Mass. The monks have been engaged in prayers for the dead since the monument was opened.
Nothing prepared me for the site, which from the motorway seems to consist of a giant cross on top of a granite mountain. In fact, you go through the abbey into a vast tunnel cut through the rock. Inside is a basilica which is technically larger than St Peter’s in Rome, with an interior dome larger than St Paul’s. Along the huge interior are reposing warriors paying their mutual respects. There are two grave stones. The earliest, for Jose Antonio Prima de Rivera, the Falangist leader, the other for Franco after he popped off in 1975.
An elevator speeds you up nine floors to the base of the cross, upon which there are giant figures of the Evangelists, with eagle, lion and so forth. The cross looms 154 meters above that. As I suffer from vertigo I declined the further trip up the cross.
Other than the pyramids, I don’t think I’ve seen such an extraordinary man made structure, built, it should be said, over a 20 years period by Republican prisoners who could redeem a day of their sentences with every two days spent hewing granite in the vast tunnel.
This Catholic-totalitarian monument was supposed to symbolise national reconciliation, but one notes the ‘for God and Spain’ inscribed on the huge bronze gates, used to reduce the scale of the basilica so that the consecrated part would not be bigger than St Peter’s.
A lot to ponder when we rested on a terrace overlooking Toledo.
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